Emma Hansen is a writer and model whose blog post about the passing of her first son, Reid, due to a true knot in his umbilical cord, went viral in 2015. Today, Hansen is trained as a full-spectrum doula and lives in Vancouver, Canada. She is the daughter of Rick Hansen, a former Paralympian and world-renowned disability activist. Still is her first book.
Tell us how you came to write a book about your experience with stillbirth.
It began with Reid’s birth story. The day after we came home from the hospital I started to write everything down, and then I suppose I never really stopped. Writing was how I was able to process what had happened, to learn what it meant to me, and also to connect with others. Blogging and social media became extremely powerful tools of support, and they ultimately led to a publishing opportunity. I felt so supported by the stories that were shared with me that this memoir felt like a way I could pay that support forward somehow.
You talk about how important bereavement care is for a family after a baby is stillborn. What can this care look like, and why is it so vital?
After a baby is stillborn, time is something there’s not an excess of, and it’s the only time a family will get with their baby. It’s so important the family’s care providers are able to convey all of the options to them in a way that is mindful of that individual family’s beliefs and also acknowledges current research on best practices for bereavement care. This can look like: seeing and holding the baby; taking photos; clipping a lock of hair; making castings of hands and/or feet; participating in caregiving rituals (bathing, applying lotion, brushing hair, diapering, dressing, etc.); having family members and/or close friends come to visit, meet, or hold the baby; talking, reading, and/or singing to the baby; partaking in religious or spiritual rituals or ceremonies; having someone hold the baby as the family leaves; leaving something to be kept with the baby; taking the baby home; pumping milk. There are so many different ways to create memories and support families through these experiences.
Your blog post about the passing of your son Reid, “Born Still but Still Born,” went viral when you published it in the weeks after his death, and in Still you write powerfully about how many people shared their own experiences of loss with you in response. How did these stories impact you?
These stories were an amazing gift to me, and a tremendous privilege to receive. In those first weeks and months they acted as a lifeline–proof that it was possible to survive this, that I wasn’t alone, and that I had others to turn to who could validate my thoughts and feelings.
What inspired you to train as a doula following Reid’s death?
Reid’s birth was a beautiful one, and I am extremely grateful for the opportunities I was given to make memories with him postpartum. Yet I wish I’d had more. The only regrets I have are of things I didn’t do, and I didn’t do them because no one in my presence knew they were options. I learned very early on that this was the same for many other families too, and that most of them were offered far less. After my birth doula training, I later went on to do my full spectrum doula training (which covers care from conception through to death) because I believe that to help someone through birthing you also need to know how to help someone through dying. I don’t use my doula training in the usual sense of being a hands-on birth support person, but I think my intention was always to use it in an alternative way. I want to aid in empowering others in their stories of loss, and this book is how I hope to do that. It’s how I’m manifesting my doula heart.
How can a friend or family member support a loved one who has experienced a stillbirth or pregnancy loss?
I think one of the most valuable things for the friend or family member to remember is their goal isn’t to take away their loved one’s pain. It’s to meet them in it and support them right where they are. They can send messages saying they are thinking of their loved one, and remember to keep reaching out as time goes on. If the loved one named their child, they can say their name often. In a practical sense, they can be very specific about their offers to help. For example, they can suggest a day and time to bring over a meal instead of just asking if there’s anything they can do to help. A grieving person has no idea what they need, or if they do, they usually don’t have the capacity to go and ask for it. Directly related to stillbirth or pregnancy loss, the friend or family member can mimic their loved one’s language. If a loved one is talking about their baby and their friend or family member keeps referring to the baby as a pregnancy loss or fetus that hurts. And vice versa. At the end of the day, they should just keep showing up for their loved one out of love. That loving presence will go a long way.
In Still, you discuss how complicated it can be to receive questions such as “Is this your first?” and “Do you have other children?” from people who don’t know your story. Since stillbirth affects more than two million families annually, how can we be more mindful of people who have experienced it, and make space for them?
I think the important thing to note is that the solution isn’t to stop asking these questions. It’s to know that these variations in responses are possible ahead of time, and to think about how you might respond when you hear one. Then you can make that interaction less about you and more about the person who is sharing this intimate detail. I think it starts with reading or listening to stories that make you uncomfortable or are simply different from your own, and gaining the understanding that most everyone you know has experienced trauma in one way or another. If your answer isn’t an assumption, an attempt to minimize their pain, solve something, or change topics, and is offered from a place of love, you give the person space to share their truth.
Towards the end of your book, following the birth of your second son Everett, you write about your ambivalence towards the term “rainbow baby”—a baby born after a miscarriage, stillbirth, or neonatal death. What do you find limiting about the usual definition, and what do you imagine the term to encompass instead?
The traditional definition feeds into what our society loves to do: focus on “happy endings”—or really just “happiness” in general. I’ve noticed this is especially true in the wake of incredible trauma. We tend to insist on a positive reason for it all and want to bypass any discomfort until we’ve arrived at “happiness” again. And if this resonates for someone to focus on after loss, and if it’s done in a healthy way, I am in support of that. But for most, it’s just not helpful and only serves to minimize the magnitude of their loss. It also seems to insinuate that you only get one storm (so one death or trauma) and that after there will be a very clear “after the storm” sensation. This didn’t fit with my experience of life after loss, and so now I prefer to think of the term “rainbow baby” in a more inclusive way. I see it as a coexistence of emotions and experiences, and imagine the rainbow being one that appears right in the middle of a rainstorm, when the sun breaks through for a while. An ebb-and-flow. A reality where the person that was lost is carried forward to a time and place where happiness can exist alongside grief.
What are some ways that you and your family honour, celebrate, and remember Reid?Mostly, it’s with small, daily acts. We have some of his photos up: his portrait is in our bedroom, a picture of the casting of his hand lying next to his younger brothers’ hands is in our hallway gallery. We speak his name freely and prefer to acknowledge him when questions about how many children we have are asked. We seek out opportunities to engage with our community in ways that honour his place in our family, like at memorial walk/runs. We try to support others who have also experienced similar losses. And we celebrate his birthday every year. At first, it was with a large community and now it’s more intimate. Usually, we bake a cake and spend time reminiscing.